Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Separating fact from fiction when formulating with probiotics

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Once restricted to a handful of products, such as yogurt, probiotics are enjoying unprecedented popularity and are popping up in unexpected places with many bold health claims, but not everything consumers or manufacturers hear about probiotics is true.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, Mike Bush, president of probiotic supplier Ganeden, talks about what is driving the $40 billion probiotic industry, the marketing potential of adding probiotics to foods and beverages, and he helps separate out some of the facts from the fiction.

The boom in probiotics’ popularity comes in part from consumers who are suffering from pill fatigue and want ways to consume probiotics daily in a format that fits their lifestyle, which for many is not as a supplement, Bush said.

“Supplement compliance is relatively low. I know I have many, many bottles of unfinished supplements in my cupboard,” Bush says, even though he claims to be diligent. He explains it is difficult to remember to take them during travel or on hectic days, but that he never forgets to eat, which is why foods and beverages are often a better platform for probiotics.

“Consumers are telling us to put probiotics in things we already enjoy, so if we already drink tea every day, why not put probiotics in the tea, or if we already consume snack bars as a way to supplement our nutrition, why not put it in bars or why not just put it in things like non-dairy spreads or orange juice,” he said.

This demand has allowed Ganeden to open the market for probiotics in new places by teaming with manufacturers to develop products using its well-known shelf-stable, spore-forming probiotic BC30.

While he downplayed the development of BC30 as a “super lucky” discovery by Ganeden’s founder, he emphasized its vast potential – and reliability to deliver an efficacious dose because it remains dormant, but alive, in products with long shelf lives until consumers eat the product.

Add-value can boost margins

The rise of probiotics it clearly isn’t all due to luck. Given the tight margins in the food and beverage industry, most companies are not going to pay for an additional ingredient or the cost of reformulating existing products to include probiotics unless it will help boost sales – which is something Bush says Ganeden BC30 does.

He explained that one company that sold identical SKUs except that one had probiotics and one did not, saw a lift in topline sales of 25-28%. In addition, research by Ganeden found consumers are willing to pay up to 25% more for a product with probiotics – offering a compelling argument for manufacturers to add them to formulas.

Probiotics, and especially BC30, also offer a smart business proposition for manufacturers trying to keep up with consumers’ growing demands for food and beverages that are functional and will support them in their health and wellness endeavors.

“It depends on which survey you look at, but north of 70% of consumers understand what probiotics are and understand they provide a health benefit,” Bush said. “The most common health benefit that consumers equate to probiotics is digestive, [but] we are starting to see more and more where people understand the immune connection.”

He even noted at cocktail parties other guests will ask him about the connection between probiotics and mood, metabolic syndrome or cardiac health – all of which align with consumers increasingly viewing food as medicine or a way to prevent disease.

Myth: All probiotic strains are created equal

While health claims may be a key reason that consumers want products fortified with probiotics, they also are what can get manufacturers in trouble if they are not carefully crafted to reflect what the specific strains and doses in each product can deliver, Bush warns.

He says one of the most troubling myths for the probiotic industry and manufactures is the idea that all probiotic strains are created equal and will deliver the same benefit, which this is not true.

“Health claims, like all things probiotic, are very specifically related to the strain,” and different strains offer different benefits and require different doses for efficacy, he said.

To put this concept in perspective, he explained that several years ago a university sequenced strains of probiotics and found there were genetic variances ranging from 99.9% similar to 87% similar, meaning some strains had less in common with one another than chimpanzees and humans.

“So, it really goes to show we need to do the studies on the individual strains when you make claims and have it backed by peer reviewed, published data,” he added.

With this in mind, Bush says that manufacturers that want to formulate with probiotics need to “check two main boxes,” including does data support the claims as safe and will the strain survive in the product format.

Myth: Probiotics are synonymous with live active cultures

Bush also warns that having living probiotics in products should not be confused with products claiming to have live and active cultures.

He explained that the Live & Active Culture seal is a registered trademark that can be licensed from the Yogurt Association for products with 100 million CFUs per gram of material, but the strains don’t have to confer the probiotic benefits to people that most consumers expect. Rather, they can simple be the ones that turn milk into yogurt.

Myth: All fermented foods offer probiotic benefits

Yogurt isn’t the only segment that struggles with misleading consumers – even if unintentionally -- about the potential value or benefit of probioitics in it, Bush said. He explained the problem also extends to other fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchee, and tempeh – just too name a few.

“We see products on the market that say, ‘Delicious, fresh probiotic insert-product-name-here,’ and I am quite certain most of the companies that are saying that … have no idea what bacteria is in their product and if they do know what is in there, I doubt they know if that particular strain has been known for any type of beneficial endpoint,” he said.

Myth: There is a universal number of CFUs to confer benefits

Another myth that Bush wanted to set the record straight on is the notion that products need a universal number of CFUs of probiotics to be effective. He explained that how many CFUs a product needs to deliver a benefit depends on the specific strain used.

“Some strains have been shown to be highly effective at 30 million CFU per day and some have been shown to be highly effective at a billion per day or 5 billion a day,” he said, again emphasizing the importance of research to identify dose and benefits of specific strains.

Myth: Consuming too many probiotics is a risk

The myth on the flip side of this is an emerging notion or question about whether or not people can consume too many probiotics – especially as they are added to more and more products across categories, Bush said. He explained that while this could be a risk with some probiotics, it is not with Ganeden BC30.

Reflecting on the many myths swirling around probioitcs, Bush emphasized a common theme among them and the most important message manufacturers and consumers should take away is that everything about probiotics comes down to specific strain.

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